Some of the books I track are re-telling the same story, changing some of the particulars to make the ideas palatable and meaningful for a new audience. Sometimes, there's nothing new in a book, and I can't wait to finish it or drop it and move on to something more challenging or encouraging. Sometimes, though, a book needs to be read slowly, digested carefully, questioned interactively.
Spencer Burke's new book has not been an easy read, but it's also been one that I haven't wanted to put down. I've taken my time, worked through his word choice and nuances, and come to the conclusion that either he's lost his mind and chucked the whole thing – or he's making some sense in the way we can relate to Jesus and to each other better. A Heretic's Guide To Eternity is not going to be the feel-good beach book of the summer, but for those who take the time to work through what's being addressed, this might provide a catalyst for something really meaningful yet to come.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the way Burke seems to choose words based on what they'll do to the reader: "At this point in our history, I believe God is to be questioned as much as obeyed, created again and not simply worshipped. Our views must be continually revised, reconsidered, and debated." I almost passed right over "God…created again" – what did he mean by that?!? So I emailed the author, just to check, ask what he meant – and Spencer called me one evening while I was doing dishes, to discuss the book and what he might have meant by "re-creating God."
Good conversation, and I got a better handle on what he meant there and what he was getting at in the book as a whole, I think. After working my way through it, he's really talking about re-creating our image of God, whatever that might be, to something more true to scripture and to the way God's revealed Himself over time through His people.
Religion, at its most basic, provides a way of understanding the relationship between humans and the divine. But it's incomplete, so over time, elaborate systems, doctrines, and dogmas are developed to fill in the missing details. In fact, the desire to have our religion cover every aspect of human life is so strong that even when the sacred texts are silent, we'll find a way to make a connection. (p. 28)
Rather than binding and gagging grace behind the walls of Christianity and making access to it conditional on the acceptance of culturally created ideas, I believe we need to present the message of Jesus outside of brand Christianity. We need to present grace in such a way as to generate genuine wonder and amazement…. Grace is bigger than any religion. Grace cannot be bound by humanly constructed religion. Religion needs to embrace grace if it is to offer any hope to the word. (p. 47, 50)
I see grace as a connecting conduit. It's the gift that connects us with God. It has the power to move us away from checklist living, away from jumping through hoops and all the other ways religion makes us perform in order to receive its blessing. Grace is offered to all people, everywhere, regardless of religious affiliation. (p. 69)
And there's the rub: while talking about grace, focusing on this aspect of God's relationship with us His created, Burke is laying claim to the idea that God's grace is for everyone. Beyond strict universalism, I think he's trying to prod the reader to at least consider the possibility that Jesus really died for all, that God really loves all of us, and that His love and grace can reach beyond the shallow boundaries and fences that we've made up for our own judgmental tendencies. Instead of "getting saved" by opting in on the right doctrinal and theological assents – what if we are instead given the chance, just as Adam and Eve in the Garden, to "opt out"? What if we start off "saved", and the only way to get out is to choose against the Father, to decide for ourselves that we do not need Him any longer?
You can probably see why I took my time. I didn't want to sell Burke short, make him say things my prejudices read into the text instead of just going through with the "what if's" dangling alongside. And I must say that I've appreciated this book to stretch my own questions and growth. I know a few people who would appreciate this book as I have, and I know many more who would close it before getting out of the roman-numerals in the Introduction.
To make salvation simply about what happens when we die is to make it less than it is meant to be. It also makes it conditional, based on one's response to a certain equation or set of beliefs, which is far from the beauty of being connected with God both now and in the future. (p. 180)
I think it boils down to this: do we want more people to "make it" and begin to live out the life of Christ here now, or do we want to be about helping God pick and choose who's getting in and who's being left out? I'm falling on the idea that wants more folks: the more, the merrier.